Populist Revolution? How a Bold New Voter Coalition Can Reshape the Nation
Tuesday's election will be regarded as a pivotal one in US history. For 30 years the top 1 percent has manipulated the masses to vote against their own interests. It was able to do that because the feelings of the white middle and lower classes about social issues overwhelmed their economic considerations.
But something interesting happened this year: high levels of minority and young voter turnout, together with an increased Obama-tilt among all voters earning less than $50,000 a year, routed the GOP. In one sense, the election represents the triumph of the Reverend Jesse Jackson and his “Rainbow Coalition." The Reverend Jackson was the first serious challenge of a black man for the presidency, and with his Rainbow Coalition, he ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and in 1988, with a platform that represented an anthology of progressive ideas from the 1960s. He attracted a large number of supporters, many of them from the white working-class. Each time his movement looked like it was gaining electoral traction, the Democratic Party establishment would invariably mobilize against him and elect feeble white liberals – Mondale and Dukakis – who plummeted to defeat by Reagan and George Bush Sr.
It would be absurd to suggest that today’s Wall Street-dominated Democratic Party is the natural outgrowth of this coalition. That said, Jackson provided the template on how to counter the onslaught of conservative, big money politics (which helped to produce the Reagan presidency). It was Jackson, after all, who first devoted considerable resources toward increasing black registration for national elections, a pattern increasingly being replicated for other minority blocs, which are soon likely to become the majority as we move toward an increased “browning” of America. But Jackson’s appeal went beyond race, as he was the first to see the value of building a progressive coalition which espoused many of the ideas now articulated by groups such as Occupy Wall Street, notably income inequality and the taboo subject of class. Jackson knew that you can’t build an effective coalition around identity politics. You have to bring people together through their shared economic interest.
This populist focus was best illustrated during Jackson’s visit to Camp Solidarity in Virginia in the late 1980s, meeting largely white miners who were in the midst of the historic Pittston strike:
“Rich Trumka, then president of the United Mine Workers, told them, ‘Y'all probably wondering why Jesse Jackson is here. Last year we were told to be scared of him. And this year the folks we gave our money to are nowhere to be seen. So I want you to ask yourselves, Which would you rather have, a black friend or a white enemy?’
“It was a question other Southern white trade unionists had raised during the campaigns with their memberships, many of them Reagan Democrats. As elsewhere, the miners listened and responded enthusiastically. Jackson always maintained that a progressive candidate could reach such Democrats with straight talk, empathy, class-angled economics and an appeal to common human values--what veteran activist Anne Braden, who'd organized Rainbow rallies in Appalachia that drew thousands of poor white nonvoters or registered Republicans, called ‘appealing to the best instincts of Southern whites as opposed to the worst, which is what Bill Clinton played to.’”
Braden could very well have added that this is the group to which the GOP has played to for the past 50 years, since the days of Richard Nixon.
If this had been a squeaker maybe one couldn't draw conclusions. But the new coalition of Democrats comprised of minorities, independent women, gays, working-class white voters, and younger people in general overcame through high turnout an increasingly threatened and fierce social conservative block. The demographics and trends in cultural change will just keep tipping the electorate toward the new coalition. Their positions are as deep-seated as those of the social conservatives. Obama and the Democrats did this with the considerable headwind of 8 percent unemployment.
What this means is that the coalition of the top 1 percent and the social conservatives that would go with them even though it hurt them economically is now in relative decline. Unlike the 1984 and 1988 campaigns of Jackson, this time the progressive coalition won. True, it would be unrealistic to suggest that President Obama is the avatar of this new movement, but his operation was able to surmount people like the Koch brothers who no longer have a sufficient bloc of fools they can manipulate to achieve their ends. They had on their side the Supreme Court decision of Citizens United. They had 8 percent unemployment. They had a presentable pathological liar who had no compunction about saying anything to try and fool the white electorate to keep acting against their own interests.
People just do not understand that this infernal and inherently contradictory GOP coalition was what the Republicans needed to sustain their tenuous grip on power. It now seems that a new coalition from the broad masses has emerged that can out-vote them even with the unprecedented money the other side had. Witness the success of progressives such as Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio, and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and all of the big money mobilized against them. And this coalition will gain increasing relative strength as people age. This election looks like the end of the GOP revival that goes back to Reagan that has led to the skewing income distribution and the financial capitalism that has replaced efficient goods markets with corrupt financial speculation.
One can criticize Obama for being too much of a compromiser, which I think he is. And in many respects, this election was like eating at a restaurant where you've got no good choices on the menu, and you just take the least unappetizing main course instead of one which will give you food poisoning. It is also the case that much of the turnout was a product of fear, rather than enthusiasm: blacks infuriated by the GOP’s repeated voter suppression schemes, slapped down in the Florida and Pennsylvania courts, Hispanics annoyed by the Republicans’ visceral hostility to immigrants and the championing of storm trooper law enforcement tactics by the likes of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and women angered by repeated GOP attempts to colonize their bodies.
That said, it took a very clever and effective politician to pull it off with the logistical expertise to mobilize large elements of the coalition pursued by Jackson. Someone less politically skilled than Barack Obama would have lost. The dying GOP coalition would have come into power and done as much damage as they could do frustrate the new majority. The Supreme Court would have been the greatest casualty because they would have packed it with social conservatives who would have placed great roadblocks to the objectives of the new coalition destined to eventually take political power.
There is no doubt that the short term is still problematic. One can almost certainly expect to see the return of “Mr. Grand Bargain,” as the Democrats offer up on a silver platter their signature social achievements of the last century, Social Security and Medicare. But there are straws in the wind that suggest this is a last gasp of the old neo-liberal Washington consensus, as opposed to a harbinger of yet more of the same.
Consider what happened in California on Tuesday. Against the usual moneyed interests, the state passed Proposition 30, so for the first time that California was able to get past the intense financial lobbying that usually occurs during these referenda. Instead, it followed the advice of Governor Jerry Brown and passed a tax increase to increase funding for public education. Remember, California used to have the best public school system in the country until it was gutted by Prop 13. And that too was a harbinger of what was to follow.
Even better news is that the Democrats won super majorities in both houses of the California legislature. If this holds, which it seems to be doing, the Republicans can no longer keep the state in dysfunction with a one-third-plus-one vote. And California almost always points the way to the future. Prop 13 was the start of this neo-liberal anti-government crusade.
So this could very well set the stage for a new kind of future for the country some 30 years after Jesse Jackson began his progressive crusade.